Supreme Court Okays Departures in Drug Cases

The Supreme Court today affirmed rulings of two district court judges in cases in which they had granted downward departures from the federal sentencing guidelines. One case involved crack, the other ecstasy.

The cases are Kimbrough v. U.S., 06-6330 (opinion here, pdf) and Gall v. U.S., 06-7949, opinion here (pdf).

In Kimbrough, the Court had imposed a 15 year sentence instead of the 19 to 22 years called for by the guidelines. In Gall, the Court granted probation instead of a 30 to 37 month sentence.

Scotus Blog explains the decisons. Law Prof Doug Berman of Sentencing Law and Policy is very excited and will have a lot of commentary as soon as he's digested the opinions.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Sentencing Commission will announce its decision on whether its recent crack cocaine guideline reduction will be retroactive and thus apply to the 19,500 crack offenders now in federal prison.

Update: Two quotes from Kimbraugh on the difference between mandatory minimums and guidelines and ability of judges to consider the disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties:

The statute, by its terms, mandates only maximum and minimum sentences: A person convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of crack cocaine must be sentenced to a minimum of 5 years and the maximum term is 40 years. A person with 50 grams or more of crack cocaine must be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years and the maximum term is life. The statute says nothing about the appropriate sentences within these brackets, and we decline to read any implicit directive into that congressional silence.
In formulating Guidelines ranges for crack cocaine offenses, as we earlier noted, the Commission looked to the mandatory minimum sentences set in the 1986 Act, and did not take account of “empirical data and national experience.” See Pruitt, 502 F. 3d, at 1171 (McConnell, J., concurring). Indeed, the Commission itself has reported that the crack/powder disparity produces disproportionately harsh sanctions, i.e., sentences for crack cocaine offenses “greater than necessary” in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in §3553(a). See supra, at 8–9. Given all this, it would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder disparity yields a sentence “greater than necessary” to achieve §3553(a)’s purposes, even in a mine-run case.
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  • Display: Sort:
    Yay! (none / 0) (#1)
    by txpublicdefender on Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 10:19:31 AM EST
    This is great news!  

    Actually, in both cases, technically, (none / 0) (#2)
    by Deconstructionist on Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 12:04:30 PM EST
      the Supreme Court reversed appellate court decisions (4th in Kimbrough, 8th in Gall) which vacated sentences imposed by district courts. In Kimbrough the 4th Circuit held a district court could not vary from the guideline sentencing range on the basis of disagreeng with the impact of the 100:1 powder:crack ratio in a particular case,  and in Gall, the 8th Circuit essentially held that in the absence of "extraordinary circumstances" a district court could not widely vary from an sentencing range of at least 3 years in prison to a sentence of probation.

      In both cases the Supreme Court strongly reinforced the advisory nature of the guidelines and reinvigorated the concept that review of sentences by appellate courts should be highly deferential and that reversal is only warranted in cases of abuse of discretion.

      That clarification is important because these were both cases appealed by the government after sentencing. In both cases the Courts of Appeals essentially sought to substitute their judgments for the district court's.

      It's not so much that the Supreme Court ruled that the district court sentences should be reinstated in these two cases but that the Court has now made clear that appellate review should be very limited and that if district courts ariculate findings which are accurate and impose sentences that are not "unreasonable" based on those findings, appellate courts should affirm.

    thanks for the clarification (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 12:06:22 PM EST
    I'll make it clearer in the post that the Court upheld the district judge's orders.